Sunday February 27 in 2000 is a date forever etched into my memory. I was back in Puglia and for the next seven days my life was one comedy act after another – even though I didn’t think so at the time.
We arrived at the Hotel Palace in Bari after a domestic flight from Rome and the ubiquitous mini bus had picked the six of us up, compared to other hotels we had stayed in, the rooms were quite palatial.
We hit the road and went straight to Cantine Coppi, the first in a long list of wineries, the reason for our trip. At 5:00PM we were met by two young girls, the daughters of the owner – we thought but never really discovered. They were obviously chosen because of their language skills, they spoke English well enough to be understood and we had an enjoyable tasting with them although back then I wouldn’t have said the wine was the best. In fact we started saying that any wine that didn’t come up to scratch was a ‘coppi-cat’. We confused several people by saying this. These days I can assure you that Cantine Coppi is producing lovely wines that frequently win awards.
After the tasting we went back to the hotel and changed for dinner. The restaurant was at the top of the hotel and we got out of the elevator to a large foyer. There was a room to one side made up for about a dozen people and we thought maybe that was for us. Along with the six of us there was Livia our guide, twin sisters from the tourism board and the mayor of Bari had promised to dine with us.
We soon found out that we weren’t sitting in the room when we were shooed out by an overly enthusiastic waiter who kept yelling at us to leave. Those of us who understood Italian left immediately but the others didn’t understand what was going on and this infuriated the waiter whose pitch got even louder (if you speak louder they will understand). We had to go back and herd the remaining people out before the guy had apoplexy.
While we were wandering around like lost sheep Livia arrived and following close on her heels the mayor. He spoke to Livia and then shook hands with us all and basically said or inferred that an important person had arrived from Argentina and we were no longer important enough for him and he would be dining with this other person. We were very surprised, not that he wouldn’t dine with us – that we understood – but the way he told us.
At this stage we were all laughing at what had happened and with Livia leading the way we walked into the restaurant. We were seated and then the menu came out, joy of joys, that night they were having a special degustation of donkey meat. We declined and asked for the normal menus to the utter disgust of the Maitre D. We chose our meals along with Frank, the Dutchman, who went for the degustation. We then saw the wine menu and ordered the wine, specific products that we were all keen to try.
We sat talking waiting for the meals to arrive, it was an extremely long conversation. Finally they started coming, unfortunately not all of them and in the wrong order. The entrees and mains came out together. Some people got an entree, some people got a main and one person got both at the one time. Some people got entrees they had ordered and some people got completely different meals.
We tried to call the waiters back but they were successfully ignoring us so we looked for the Maitre D. We saw him on the other side of the room with a mobile phone fixed to each ear. We thought we had entered the filming of some comedy TV show like Candid Camera. It was totally crazy. The Maitre D finally put down one phone and came over. By the time he had got to our table he had finished his conversation and said could he help.
He explained the entrees were very similar to what we had ordered and the kitchen must have substituted them for some reason and he was sure we would enjoy them – no offer to change them to what they were supposed to be meanwhile Frank’s first course of his degustation arrived and he started eating. We decide to keep the entrees because it was less trouble and we were hungry by this stage. However, the mains had to go back and entrees serve to those people.
Frank’s next course came out and he kept on eating.
We asked where our wine was and a bottle came out and was poured, then the bottle disappeared again. We were suspicious and asked for the bottle. It was returned and it turned out not to be the wine we had ordered. Once again the ‘kitchen’ had substituted the wine (thinking that we wouldn’t notice) – they picked the wrong crowd, we knew our wines and we had expected a good wine and we got a terrible wine.
Franks next course came and he continue eating.
By this stage the guys were getting a little touchy, it was no longer fun. Bill, a New Yorker with a short fuse decided he’d had enough and got up and left. He said he had seen a pizzeria near the hotel and if anybody felt like it they could join him.
Frank continued his Donkey degustation without comment.
By this time Bill had disappeared, Aaron was next to follow. Michael then left and Jim joined him. Livia got up and left Frank, the twin sisters from the tourist board and me.
Frank continued to munch away.
I finally said my apologies and left.
Frank kept on eating.
This was not my first or even my last trip to Puglia, but it is the one I remember with incredulity. How could the hotel be so good and its restaurant be so bad.
I have found the food of Puglia to be some of the best in the whole of Italy. It is a vegetarian’s paradise and if you’re not vegetarian the seafood is fantastic.
I remember a meal in a restaurant on the side of the Gravina Ravine. Not only was the view fantastic but the food – all 15 courses – was unbelievably good. Each course arrived on a small plate: orrecchiette con broccoli rabe, cozze ripiene and an array of vegetable dishes, the food just kept on coming. By the time number 15 came, we were sitting like fat little buddhas but we had been unable to ignore a single plate of food.
My next trip to Puglia will show the same abandonment just in case I never get back there again. I wouldn’t want to come back saying I hadn’t tried something.